The Obama administration is to invest heavily in efforts to study the microbiome, the huge variety of microbes that live in the human body and in different ecosystems.

The National Microbiome Initiative (NMI) is a  US$121-million plan to map and investigate the microbiome over the next two years. According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) the scheme will involve multiple federal agencies, writes Sara Reardon for Scientific American.

White House Seeks Funding For Study Of Microbiome

Multiple agencies interested in further study of microbiome

While the government will invest $121 million, private investors will contribute another $400 million. One big donor is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which will give $100 million to nutrition and pest control programs in developing countries, as well as research institutions that examine how microbes are involved in cancer therapeutics and marine microbiology.

In recent years microbiomes have become an area of increased interest for scientists.There have been a number of advances in genome sequencing, imaging and computing tools which have allowed scientists to better understand the influence of microorganisms in human health, food production and climate change.

However Tim Donohue, a bacteriologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center., says that many things are still unknown. “I think we know how to figure out who’s there,” he says. “But we don’t have the tools to generate the knowledge about what they’re doing and how their activities benefit ecosystems or are detrimental to ecosystems.”

Work depends on approval of funding plan

The project could still run into difficulties as the funding plan still needs to be approved by Congress. NMI is relying on the bulk of its funding coming as part of the fiscal year 2017 budget.

Republican lawmakers, who control both the House of Representatives and the Senate, have not generally supported President Obama’s plans. It is thought that they could be reluctant to give more money to research into the role of microbes in climate change and alternative energy.

“I think it’s going to be a fight,” says Stefano Bertuzzi, director of the American Society of Microbiology in Washington DC.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is interested in the influence of microbes on crops and animals, and would contribute $24 million under the White House plan. The National Institutes of Health will contribute $20 million to the plan, which comes in addition to the hundreds of millions it spends on microbiome research in its own right.

Potential for major scientific advances

The National Science Foundation sill also add around $16 million, and the Department of Energy will add $10 million for research into biofuels. NASA will also get involved due to its interest in extraplanetary life and the effects of microbes on humans in space.

According to Bertuzzi it is rare to see so many government agencies involved in a single science initiative. “The Da Vinci who can summarize all the expertise needed is no longer the case because it’s gotten so complicated and so specialized,” he says. “That’s why we need initiatives like this.”

According to David Murray, director of the office of disease prevention at the National Institutes of Health, one of the biggest needs for human health is more long-term studies. While the human microbiome is one of the most well-studied, we still don’t know how microbes interact.

Long-term studies could help scientists to work out whether health problems lead to a dysfunctional microbiome, or whether it is the other way round. The initiative has the potential to lead to major advances, if the funding plan is approved.